December 15, 2015

Excerpt: Nora Ephron’s Last Interview



A hilarious and revealing look at one of America’s most beloved screenwriters. Packed with her characteristic wit, wisdom, and charm, this collection of interviews with Nora Ephron celebrates a treasured voice in American film and letters. Ranging from her days as a writer for Esquire and New York—well before When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle catapulted her to stardom—to her very last interview, these conversations shine a spotlight on the life and work of a dazzling writer.

Below, an excerpt from Ephron’s last interview, conducted by The Believer‘s Kathryn Borel in March 2012.


Nora Ephron says that when she’s writing a movie, the middle is the hardest part to get right. But in real life, and socially, she’s great at the middle. She’ll even substitute it for the beginning, which has the captivating effect of fostering an immediate sense of social intimacy.

We met on a day when the leaves were starting to crumble off L.A.’s deciduous trees and blow all over the place. As she pulled open the heavy wooden door to her bright, neat home in Beverly Hills, before extending her hand or saying hello, she looked past me at the ground and said something about how she was happy there were no leaves on the front steps, that she didn’t want it to be messy for my arrival. A little later, after giving me coffee and water to drink, and corn chips to eat, she motioned to a small bowl of satsuma tangerines on the table. She was already eating one and said, “You have to try one. They’re from my little tree.” Before I could pick one out of the bowl, she peeled off two segments from hers and placed them in my palm.

There’s a practicality to her charisma that is rare, though that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed her enormous career. Ephron has been working in male-dominated milieus since her early twenties: starting with newspaper journal- ism in New York in the 1960s; moving on to magazine writing, then screenplays; accruing a hat trick of Academy Award nomi-nations for writing Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, which she also directed. Her latest success was Julie & Julia, which she wrote, produced, and directed.

Her 2006 book, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, became a bestseller, as did her follow-up essay collection, I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections. Critics and fans recognize her as the mother of the romantic comedy, and a whole other subset of critics and fans credits her with being the original Tina Fey. But she’s likely to reject all that lionizing—of her career, her accolades, her voice. It became clear over the course of our conversation that every bit of her work energy goes not into mythology, nor the crusade of the female comedy writer, but into the slog of writing, thinking, planning, and more writing.


BOREL: You’ve said that as you get further into your career, you become afraid of repeating yourself, of repeating narratives. What exercises do you undertake to keep your brain churning out fresh material?

EPHRON: One exercise is to write. That’s one of the reasons I became interested in blogging—it was a new muscle to flex. I mean, I’m not even sure it is any longer, because things move very quickly in internet culture, but six years ago it was a new form. It wasn’t quite an essay, but it was essayish. It had to be short because of the concentration span of the reader. It had a different function from other kinds of writing, in that it wasn’t meant to just be this piece of writing that people read, it was meant to be a piece of writing that started a conversation among the readers. Which became a reason for people to read it, so that they could then express what they thought about it. And once you learn that about blogging, then you first of all have the sense not to read any of the comments—because at a certain point they will be mean about you.

BOREL: Right. And they’ll always invoke Hitler at some point, according to Godwin’s law of Nazi Analogies.

EPHRON: Yeah! Or totally miss the joke. That’s a given.

BOREL: The internet is the superhighway of grammatically incorrect moral outrage.

EPHRON: The thing is, you don’t really have to believe what you write in a blog for more than the moment when you’re writing it. You don’t bring the same solemnity that you would bring to an actual essay. You don’t think, Is this what I really want to say? You think, This is what I feel like saying at this moment. So that’s one way to stay fresh. But there’s no question in my mind…I sometimes feel like I don’t have a thought that I haven’t already written at some point in my life. [Pause] I don’t mean that exactly. I honestly do have an original idea now and then. But there is a kind of sense of: If I were writing a column once a week, oh my god, I’d shoot myself! But the people who do do it are my writing heroes. I just can’t get over how hard that is. People like Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins. . .My jaw is on the floor thinking of what it would be like to have to think of that many ideas. When I was at Esquire I did a monthly column, and that was about as many ideas as I had a year. About twelve ideas. There’s no question that writing for a monthly is different than writing for a weekly. That’s just the truth.

You know, the older I get, the more I understand what [Marshall] McLuhan meant when he said, “The medium is the message.” I didn’t really get it at all when I first read it, and now I’m very conscious of it. For instance, when I read a book on a Kindle, I’ve noticed that I’m more impatient. Because I’m turning the page so often, if something hasn’t happened, I think, When is anything going to happen in this book? You become way more obsessed with plot than you would if you had an actual book and you understood where you were in that book. That little percentage tracker on the bottom of the Kindle screen is not a helpful thing. You can’t go back when you’ve forgotten who a character is. So I’m very conscious of how that medium changes the reading experience completely.

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Tomorrow, we’ll have one more excerpt from our last interview series: Ernest Hemingway!